Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day Tribute - Experiences of a WW I Veteran

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the world rejoiced and celebrated because after four years of bitter war, the Allied powers signed a cease-fire agreement (an armistice) with Germany at Rethondes, France on November 11, 1918. This brought World War I to a close. November 11, 1919 was set aside as Armistice Day in the United Sates, to remember the sacrifices that men and women made during World War I in order to ensure a lasting peace...Beginning in 1954, the United States designated November 11 as Veterans Day to honor veterans of all U.S. wars. (quoted from

My grandfather, Joseph Kennedy (Ken) Masterson, was in France on that fateful that day. He was inducted in the U.S. Army on June 24, 1918. He was trained at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky until about July 15th at which time he was shipped to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana and then to Camp Stewart, Virginia. He was deployed to Europe on August 6, arriving in Brest, France on the 18th. He was first attached to the 39th Division (Co. H., 154th Reg. Infantry). He was transferred to the 32nd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces (Co. H, 125th Inf.) in September 1918 as one of the replacements.
Joseph Kennedy Masterson, Private,
United States Army. Fought during
World War I in France and Germany
from 24 June 1918 to 21 May 1919.
We are fortunate to have the letters that he wrote to his future wife, our grandmother, Mary Ethel Peake. Ken doesn't write much about the war until his letter of November 25, 1918. This was the first letter he had written since August 26, shortly after arriving in Europe. The letter covered two pages, but the mention of the war was very short:
     Dear Ethel I will take the pleasure to write you a few lines as it has been quite a while since I have written to you. But the reason I haven’t written before now it has been just so I couldn’t. Well, E., I have been on the front lines & have been over the top several times.
     I sure have seen some fighting.
     When I saw my friends falling on both sides of me & I never got a scratch so I began to think I was lucky. I was under shell fire for about 22 days. I was in the support line when the Armustice [sic] was signed. So I was sure a happy fellow then haha.
     But now I am hiking every day. I have hiked all over France & across Belgium & now I am in Luxemburg. So I guess the next move I will land in Germany. haha
     Say I have sure been going some since I came into the service. Just 5 months yesterday.
Private Masterson doesn't mention his experiences in the war again until January 15, 1919. At that time he was in Germany. Unlike his previous letters, most of this one was about the fighting. Grandpa always inserted haha whenever he expressed strong emotions. I have retained the spelling from the original letter...he only had a sixth grade education:
     I was transferred from the 39th Div to the 32nd. I met this Div at Suzan Court the 20th of Sept & left there on the 22nd for the front, we went in the front lines the 1st of Oct. We were on the front for 20 days, & I went over the top several times, the first time I went over the top I thought it was fun but I soon changed my mind haha. When I seen my friends falling all around me, I didn’t think it was so funny.
     When the shells were bursting around me, you just ought to see me hug the ground haha. I thought several times when the bullets were singing around my head that I would never get to see your smile face again.
     We were under shell fire when the Armistice was signed & were going on the front again on the 12th of Nov. so you know how happy I felt when I heard it was signed. Then we started on our long hike to the Rine on the 17th of Nov. We crossed Belgium Luxenbourgh & now in Germany & I guess the next place will be Russia. haha We crossed over the line between Luxenbourg & Germany on the 1st of Dec & crossed the Rine river Dec 13th at Andernach.
The next, and the last, time any mention of the fighting was in a letter of February 18th. He added a map and a schedule of the 32nd Division with the explanation that he had just gotten it and thought he would send with the letter.

Written on the back of the map:
The Bar-Red-Arrow
In November 1918 when instructions were received that each Division in the A. E. F. should choose a distinguishing mark, it was thought that the red circle no longer typfied the character of the 32nd Division. It had shown by the part taken in the actions in the Chateau-Thierry Sections, on the Jewigny-Soissons Front, as well as in its fighting in the Clirgonne Forest and on the Meuse that the soldiers of the 32nd Division did not run in circles but shot through all obstacles. The troops of the Division on many occasions formed a flying wedge launched against the German lines and this fact led to the selection of the arrow as its symbol. The Commanding General of the division, when asked why he had chosen the Bar Red-Arrow as the distinguishing mark of the division, said, “I chose the barred–arrow as the Division symbol because we pierced every line the Roche put before us.”

In addition to the letters, Pvt. J.K. Masterson kept a journal of his movements overseas. The journal suffered water damage when my grandparents' basement flooded which makes it difficult to read. Below is a transcript of his marches as far as they are readable. I tried to correct the spelling, but some of the places may be wrong.

Around the world with the U. S. Army.
     Left Bardstown June 24 for Camp Taylor KY, and arrived there the same day, was placed there in the 10th Co. 3 tr. Bn. 153. Depo brigade.
     Was transferred from there to Camp Beauregard, LA July 15th for replacements to 39 Div. Co. H 154th inf. Arrived there July 18th.
     Left there for Camp Stewart July 31st. Port of embarkation Camp Stewart at Newport News, VA.
     Embarked Aug 6th for France. Arrived in the harbor at Brest Aug 18th, got off the ship the 19th. Hiked out past Napoleon barracks and struck a field camp the same day, the dirtiest place on earth.
     The 21st went to the harbor and helped unload supplies. The 22nd hiked back to the Napoleon barracks and had a two Minute cold water bath, and spent the night on guard.
     Aug 23rd hiked back to Brest, and loaded in two by four box cars for Quincy France. Thirty six in each car. Unloaded at Mehun, the 27th and hiked four Km. the same day to Quincy. Left Quincy the 12th of Sept, hiked 15 Km, to St. Florence, to a transportation camp.
     Left on the night of Sept 17th for replacements of the 32nd Div, some more nice riding in a side door pullman. Arrived at St. Dizier Sept 20th, hiked 17 Km to Suzanne Court, where I joined the 32nd Div, and was assigned to Co H 125th Inf.
     Left there the 22nd for the front, in trucks. 24 hour ride. We stopped in the woods at noon 23rd 24th and 25th, hiked at night and the morning of the 26th we camped in the woods in front of the --- Artillery.
     The 29th was Sunday and we hiked that Morning, and then worked the rest, Till 7 Pm and at 8 Pm we hiked in the support lines.
     And the night of the 30th we went in on the front. That was the Argonne sector, of the Verdun front in the Argonne forest.
     Went Over the top the first time.
     Oct 7th, our Captain got killed that evening, Francis A. Barlow, and then about all we did, was go over the top and we sure was shot all to pieces on that front.
     The night of the 19th, the 89th Div relieved us. On the 20th hiked back 12 Km. to the rear for rest. We struck a field camp in the Malfalkin Woods.
     Started back to the front the 31st. Camped in the woods left of Romance. Hiked up to big concrete dugout on the 2nd of Nov, stayed there 4 days. Went back on the support lines on the 7th. We crossed the --- River the night of the ---th then we camped at Suchrey in the woods until the Armistice was signed on the 11th month 11th day and 11th hour. The last shot was fired at 10:45 am.
     Then we moved into some German barracks until the Glorious hike to the Rheine was started. The night of the 12th was the first time I slept in a building since the 12th of Sept.
     Nov 16th, started the hike to the Rheine, hiked 10 Km to some German barracks. Nov 17th hiked 14 Km to ---
     Nov 18th hiked 30 Km to Longwy.
     Nov 20th hiked 15 Km and crossed one corner of Belgium and crossed at Aubang Luxembourg.
     Nov 21st hiked 28 Km to Holndenger Luxembourg.
     Nov 22nd hiked 12 Km to Godbrange.
     Nov 23rd hiked 28 Kilometers to Siegen farm, rested there 7 days.
     Dec 1st hiked 23 Km to Elgendorf Germany. Crossed the line in to Germany Dec 1st.
     Dec 2nd hiked 18 Km to Erdorf.
     Dec 3rd hiked 10 Km to Oberkail.
     Dec 5th hiked 35 Km to Daun.
     Dec 6th hiked 22 Km to Boos.
     Dec 7 hiked 21 Km to Marpie.
     Dec 9th hiked 5 Km to Thur.
     Dec 10th hiked 15 Km to Andernach on the Rhine River.
     Dec 13th hiked 18 Km to Oberbieber. Crossed the Rhine at 11 am, in a drizzling rain, and fell out and rested on the last end of the bridge.
     Dec 14th hiked 18 Km to Willroth and established a line of defense for the bridge head on the Rhine.
     Jan 1st 1919 hiked 1 Km to Gierend Germany where I am stationed for quite a while. On the night of April the 7th I went to Oberbieber with a wagon train to turn them in.

The United States Army published a brief history of the 32nd Division in response to the desire of the Army Commander that all "individuals...receive a written or printed brief of their history as soldiers of the A.E.F." This history has been digitized by Google and can be viewed here. According to that history, the division suffered the loss of 6,637 officers and men due to death, wounds, gas, and missing in action during the time my grandfather was attached to the division. Miraculously, he came through unscathed.

On March 24, 1919 John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief, wrote a letter to Major General William Lassiter, Commander of the 32nd Division, extending his compliments to the men. In that letter, he states: "...During the Meuse-Argonne offensive the 32d Division entered the line on September 30th and by its persistence in that sector it penetrated the Kreimhilde Stellung, taking Romagne and following the enemy to the northeastern edge of the Bois de Bantheville. On November 8th, the division took up the pursuit of the enemy east of the Meuse until the time when hostilities were suspended.
    "Since the signing of the Armistice the 32d Division has had the honor to act as a part of the Army of Occupation. For the way in which all ranks have performed their duties in this capacity, I have only the warmest praise and approval. The pride of your officers and men, justified by such a record, will insure the same high morale which has been present in the division during its stay in France. I want each man to know my appreciation of the work he has done and of the admiration in which he is held by the rest of his comrades in the American Expeditionary Forces."

Ken finally made it home and was honorably discharged at Camp Zachary Taylor on 21 May 1919. He never talked about his war experiences to his children, but it is clear that he instilled a sense of patriotism to them as both his sons enlisted in the military as soon as they graduated high schoolthe oldest was in the Army Air Corps and was captured by the Germans in World War II, the youngest joined the Air Force and served in Korea and in Vietnam during those wars.

Otho Masterson 1943
Kenneth Masterson 1951

I am honored to have such valiant men in my heritage. 

Thanks for dropping by.


  1. Thank you for sharing these letters. Aren't they a treasure? Such a sobering thought to imagine what these servicemen and women went through.